I loved the original StarCraft back in 1998. I remember rushing out to buy a copy from Electronic Boutique (which later became GAME) after seeing a scant few screenshots printed in PC Format one afternoon. It was a massive box, I’ve no idea what edition it was but it came with stickers, a guidebook and t-shirt (answers on a postcard please) which I still own to this day. What followed over the next two or so years was nothing short of being an addiction, a mad obsession of learning about the militaristic Terrans, the swarming Zerg and the mysterious Protoss warriors, in what had to be one of the most finely crafted science-fiction yarns of the modern era. Little did I know however that it was merely the tip of a much larger, planet-crushing iceberg of awesomeness.
Opening with a stunning video sequence (seriously Blizzard, when are we getting a StarCraft movie?) that would have Michael Bay giggling like an excited schoolgirl; the very first impression is one of ludicrously high production values. StarCraft has always been one of Blizzard’s big guns and the amount of passion gone into this instalment is apparent from the onset. Here the plot revolves around Kerrigan and her struggle to reconnect with the Zerg hordes but in doing so, has to purge what humanity she once possessed and sink to depths far darker than before. That a title this gorgeous can run on some criminally low system specs is the biggest feat of all, meaning unlike a vast majority of current PC releases, those of us unable to dedicate our entire pay cheque to the latest graphic cards can still enjoy the game.
What impresses me with Heart of the Swarm, and indeed the StarCraft franchise as a whole, is the great deal of thought and attention given into the single player campaign which many other publishers would otherwise neglect. This game possesses a deep narrative, set within a wonderfully rich and often dark universe, that Blizzard are proud to revel in and, as a player, you can’t help but to get swept up with all the excitement. With references to the previous games, cameo characters and long-running StarCraft lore, established fans will forever have those knowing smiles spread across their faces, while the overarching plot is still accessible for newcomers not to feel too isolated. It’s just so refreshing to see a series that employs a cast with traits, personalities and the occasional flaw rather than generic, cut and paste, space marines.
This dedication to providing a meaty single player experience, further extends into the all-important missions that not only follow a coherent progression, but also add great variety in locations and objectives. From using a single hero unit to capture an enemy base, to amassing an enormous alien swarm in a desperate bid to repel an armada of attackers, Heart of the Swarm dispels the tiresome base vs. base missions that often plague the genre. Sure, while there is some base construction and micromanagement for all you tycoons out there, goals and scenarios differ enough to keep things feeling fresh and interesting, which is essential over the course of 20 substantial stages.
Things start off simple enough, after being reintroduced to protagonist Kerrigan and her powers, through some excitingly scripted scenarios, players gradually progress to learning the particulars of various units amongst the zerg swarm, in digestible stages. Rather than throw everything at you at once, you’ll have a mission just based around resource collection and the ferocious Zerglings, another focussed on building types and the acid-spitting Roaches. It may seem long-winded for those eager to get into the thick of the action but the mission structure does a great job of teaching you how to get the most out of your swarm and highlighting otherwise overlooked strategies.
Best of all, is that in time you’re able to pick and choose what missions to tackle, thus creating a customised campaign of sorts. Do you want to introduce the hard-hitting Hydralisks into your swarm early on? Or perhaps you want to unlock the screeching Mutalisks as soon as possible? The choice, for the most part, is yours, which again adds that much needed depth and substance to the single player campaign. There are also RPG-like elements thrown in as Kerrigan rampages across the expansive galaxy. Completing optional objectives during each mission, often rewards her with evolution points, which in turn not only increase her statistics (the health and power kind, mind you) but also allow her to unlock specialist perks at specific levels.
At level five she can choose between, a crushing grip that can suspend entire groups of enemies, or chain lightening that bounces from multiple opponents; at level ten she can pick between gaining the ability to respawn fallen Zerglings, or to instantly hatch supporting Overlords. Much like the capacity to dictate the course of your campaign, having the selection to evolve Kerrigan to suit your individual playing style makes for creative idea. More so it’s not only Kerrigan who gets to develop. As the game’s plot progresses new zerg strains are introduced, meaning that even the most basic of your forces can be modified with thicker armour, faster growth or some wonderfully unique abilities such as scaling walls, spawning parasites or pulling enemy units in for the kill.
Outside the campaign lurks an extensive selection of multiplayer, skirmish modes and social functions. Players are able to test their skills against a number of different A.I. tutors, which rate their performance to help newcomers transition from the campaign into multiplayer; Global Play allows international players to compete or co-operate and amazingly replays can not only be watched but also interrupted, allowing viewers to take command and change the outcome of other people’s recorded battles. Oh and for those who prefer the other races over the Zerg, fear not because both the Terran and Protoss have received new units for on-line play, in addition to updates of existing ones. If that still isn’t enough, there are still a host of official communities on offer to discuss strategies, share maps and form competitive leagues with.
I was a little apprehensive when I heard that StarCraft II would be released through a series of instalments but after seeing the quality of both Wings of Liberty and now Heart of the Swarm I can honestly say that Blizzard made the perfect decision. The sheer amount of content on offer here is outstanding, both for solo players and on-line enthusiasts; my only gripe is now having to wait for Legacy of the Void.